The prospect of more mob fury in Egypt and Tunisia strengthens the hand of Salafis in those countries, putting new pressure on Brotherhood leaders more schooled in mounting opposition than in quelling it. As a result, the Brotherhood government is all the more challenged to win the Western aid and business it needs to stand up a functioning economy.
President Mohamed Morsi has already gone begging to the Saudis, and he now needs them more than ever. For that, the Saudis stand to gain more leverage in shaping Egypt’s dealings with the Kingdom’s foes in Iran and Syria. Even the current jockeying for power between clerics and political leaders within Egyptian Salafis’ al-Nour Party creates more chaos for the Morsi government.
Ali al Ahmed, a Shiite Saudi scholar who runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, said the Saudis are encouraging Salafi challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood governments. “They are terrified of what’s happening in Egypt,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood government there is Arab, Sunni, religiously attentive to its people. If they can create a model, others will want it in their countries.”
One of Saudi Arabia’s most popular clerics, Salman al-Odah, jailed for years as a radical, supported the Arab Spring and new Muslim Brotherhood governments. Al-Odah, who has over 1 million followers on Twitter, expressed worries that the anger of Salafis could destabilize Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
But the drive by some in the Saudi religious establishment for puritanical societies abroad may boomerang on the Saudis, just as Riyadh’s support for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and other Cold War battlegrounds ultimately caused trouble for the Saudi royals when Osama bin Laden set his sights on the Kingdom. Al Qaeda-linked jihadis who showed up for the September 11 protest at the US embassy in Cairo used clips from the televised YouTube video to incite a mob, Thomas Joscelyn has reported in The Long War Journal.
Already, Salafi protests may have further emboldened Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shiite population in the oil-rich eastern part of the country, where recent months have seen violent demonstrations and a crackdown on local leaders, who complain of harsh discrimination against by the Sunni majority. In recent months, protesters have demanded the release of political prisoners in Riyadh, draping banners over highway overpasses and gathering their families outside prisons. Political detentions have been a flash point in Arab revolutions, and in Saudi Arabia’s police state, protests are rare.
The fervor and velocity of protests that spread to some 20 countries show the reach of the Salafi movement in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have and their NGOs have been building mosques and madrassas, training Wahhabi imams and trying to radicalize Africa’s Sufi Muslims and turn them into Salafis. A Pew Research survey in 2010 found that 63 percent of Muslims across sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, favored making Shariah the law of the land. More than half believed the Islamic Caliphate would be reestablished in their lifetimes.
The spread of puritanical Islam in Africa, with its impoverished population and weak national governments, has created an opening for Islamic armed groups, like Ansar Dine in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which enforce brutal versions of Shariah, stoning adulterers, amputating thieves’ limbs, and destroying Sufi shrines. And that’s not to mention radical Islamic terrorist groups Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, believed tied to the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other embassy personnel in Bengazi, as well as a host of other radical Islamic militias in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
These Islamic militants and jihadi terrorists have been known to direct their hatred of local Christians and oil-seeking Western infidels toward Gulf monarchies. Saudi security officials this fall broke up new al-Qaeda cells in Jeddah and Riyadh.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abul Aziz al-Sheikh seemed to see the threat when he tried to tamp down the Salafi violence. Even as he lambasted the creation of the anti-Muslim video, he cautioned his followers against misdirecting violence toward embassies and diplomats, warning that “it is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty.”